Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Taste of India - living the NRI way

I never thought I would ever leave India. Firstly because I loved my country and my family too much and did NOT want to leave them back, secondly because I was too used to the Indian way and would probably never be able to adjust to what is commonly called a “firang” lifestyle and lastly because even if I wanted to there were always serious doubts about whether I would be able to finance myself. Well, I made up my mind to never leave, and the big bearded man above sniggered. And wham! I was in Singapura in late 2003 and here I still am-very much an NRI and living everyday trying to pretend that I’m not.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love Singapore. It’s a beautiful country. So clean, so rich, so law abiding. I can walk on the roads and not worry about stepping into hour old goo. I can look around me and not worry about eyesores like plastics and garbage strewn around or people answering the call of nature on the roadsides. The multitudinous cuisines, shiny bright cars, smooth roads (complete contrast to the pothole riddled city roads in India) and structured development, make for impeccable living in the garden city. My only complaint when I got here was that I could not be with my parents. Otherwise life was as good as it could get and I was pampered rotten by the luxuries that are bound to accompany economically oriented countries such as Singapore. I had everything I needed and I was happy. And then I was told about the Posto. Life changed.


Everybody knows how strict Singaporean rules are. In jest it is called a “fine” country because there is a huge fine or “denda” attached to almost every law trespassed. And the government is especially rigid with its laws on drugs. A person caught with drugs at the customs will suffer the death sentence, usually without any chance of parole. When I heard about this, I went, “Awesome! This is absolutely what the world needs.” I was all for it. And then I heard that posto commonly known as khas khas (poppy seeds) are among the banned products and unfortunately it is one of the most important ingredients in east Indian especially Bengali cooking. Obviously it inconvenienced me a lot! It suddenly struck me that I did not have EVERYTHING. I did not have posto. A piece of my culture, my food, my India, was back home and beyond my reach. I would have to make aaloo posto and potol posto and macher posto jhol WITHOUT posto.

Which actually didn’t make sense and I knew I would have to just leave the posto dishes out of my menu and wait for my annual trip back home to hog on posto as much as I could before I had to come back to dismal postoless living. This was my first foray into true NRI living and its various tribulations.

Mustafa-Home Away from Home !!!

After the posto hungama, I finally started realizing how much of Indianness I was being kept away from and how much more of an effort I had to put in to experience that Indianness in a foreign country.

The only Indian rice varieties available in Singapore are the south Indian Ponni rice (which is our staple rice brand), the Ponni parboiled rice (meant for dosas and idlis) and many varieties of Basmati rice. Kolam is nonexistent here. So as a matter of dearth of choices, we stuck with the normal ponni rice all these years sometimes alternating with basmati. Of course as Murphy’s Law would have it, last year India stopped exporting ponni rice, so we had to survive for a couple of months on Basmati rice alone. And when Ponni did start coming in, it could be procured only from Mustafa. Ah Mustafa!

At this juncture let me explain to you what Mustafa is. Mustafa centre is a departmental store in the Little India section of the island, and it is a self supporting living breathing entity by itself. It is open 24/7 three hundred and sixty five days a year. It seriously never closes...even on public holidays. And it houses just about everything under the sun. Clothes, gadgets, cutlery, frozen food, packetted food, fresh food, Indian food, bags, souvenirs, books, decorative items-whew! You name it and they’ve got it! And most importantly, it is a paradise for every Indian breathing Singaporean air. And again as luck will have it, I have to ride a bus for 45 minutes and then walk for another twenty minutes to reach Mustafa or alternately do the bus-train-change train-walk routine. And I have to do this every month to get my month’s quota of pulses, imli, poha, chutneys, rawa, besan, maida, rice, aata, paneer, papad and a host of other unnamed spices and vegetables that I don’t get in the ordinary Singaporean market places. I must say I am thankful for a Mustafa in my life. I do have to take some trouble, but at least I can maintain 90% of my Indian lifestyle in another country.


Being married to a Maharashtrian (a hard core Maratha actually), I was soon introduced to the wondrous dairy product-Shrikhand! Of course I had heard of shrikhand before, but Bengalis normally don’t incorporate Shrikhand into their cuisine. And for Maharashtrians, it is an integral part of the cuisine. So a couple of months into marital bliss and I was already experiencing the ultimate Shrikhand bliss. My husband was scouting around in Mustafa (he used to do that a lot before the store started burstin at its seams with excesses of humanity) and he managed to discover that Amul Shrikhand was available there. I think I saw him do a little jig there before he picked up what seemed like a dozen cans and brought them home ceremoniously. I still remember him reverently opening one and then greedily scooping out the contents as if it was a culinary version of Mackenna’s gold. And it so happened that he insisted I try a bit and since then I’ve been hooked. Of course my sisters-in-law make it at home (never struck me that I could too) and of course it is also freely available in farsan stores all over Bombay. As for me, Mustafa has been my haven for Shrikhand.

Today I was speaking to a Maharashtrian friend of mine-Shruti Pathak-a zany girl I knew in junior college. She recently got married and left for the USA and as such has been living a similary NRI’d life there. I asked her about life in the USA and she said she was doing well and having a ton of fun. And then she followed with “Its 11 pm here and I just finished eating Shrikhand!” I gasped (I have not had Shrikhand for a while now on account of infrequent trips to Mustafa). “Where did you get it?” I asked incredulously and to my surprise and consequent envy she said “I made it at home!” She went on to explain to me how yoghurt has to be “hung” for 7-8 hours and then spices mixed into it etc to finally obtain the heavenly manna. As for her she had made nearly 2 and a half kgs and she and her husband had managed to finish the whole thing! Is that proof enough of just how awesome Shrikhand is? Its incentive enough for me to further the NRI bit and try it at home. Beware people!

Stocking and Destocking

NRI living is all about stocking your larder, wardrobe and all other “empty spaces” with all your Indian needs (food, clothing like saris, salwar suits, jewellery to go with the saris and salwar suits, etc) Every time Sushil or I make a trip to India, we come back with our bags heavier than when we left. And of course, when someone comes over from India, he/she leaves about ten kgs lighter. Har har hyuk hyukl...thats the way the cookie crumbles. Somehow or the other, we ourselves or our families make it a point to keep a constant supply of “stuff” flowing into our house. Ghee, bodis, dals and fish from Kolkata, while multitudinous farsaans like chakalis, chips, gathiyas, chutneys and achars, seasonal vegetables, alphonso mangoes during the summer, thaleepeth and upvas bhajnis, aamras, aluvadi (always in pairs), masalas, bangles, lipsticks, bindis, kurtas for him and kurtas for me, shoes and a host of other things keep coming home. We stock up and then we utilize before the next wave of stocking. Earlier I used to be apprehensive either about things getting finished or too many things at home, but now I have learnt how to manage my house just right.

Indian at Heart

Of course there is only that much one can do. Somethings I will never be able to stock up on, no matter how hard I try. When it rains here, I marvel at the beauty of the water spashing through the treetops and my balcony. I try to picture my Mumbai in the rains. But I cannot smell my city’s soil in this dustless clean country. I remember vivdly the smell of fresh sambar wafting in from my neighbour’s kitchen through her perpetually open doors into my house. I search for an open door here, but the doors are all closed. No neighbour’s house to waltz into whenever I want. No neighbour waltzing in demanding a good cup of strong Indian masala chai. I open my French windows to welcome the chirping of the birds. But I see only mynahs and sparrows. Not like home, where the cawing of the crows used to wake me up in the wee hours of the morning. No, Singapore does not like crows and all the crows are gone. There are no cows lazily ruminating or happy dogs running around frolicking. I ache to see the mountains, vast open expanses of land, valleys and oceans, upbeat musicians and meditating saints. But I don't.

I do like Singapore a lot. It has given me a lot, and taught me a lot. But I also miss my country. What can I do if I am an NRI? Am I also not an Indian at heart?

1 comment:

Halloa! I'd be happy to hear from you so please feel free to drop in a word or two about this blog post. Cheerio!